Morocco’s Salafis find themselves facing a momentous question: is the Arab Spring a new path that should significantly alter classical Salafi non-engagement in politics?  Analysis of their activities suggests they may be retreating from traditional attitudes–and in some instances, calling for a respect of differences. Moroccan Salafis—like their counterparts elsewhere—have traditionally have shunned party politics, arguing it leads to heretical innovation (bid’a). But the idea of involvement has gained momentum with the Arab Spring, with many Salafis having joined in protests with the February 20 Movement and the leftists. Furthermore, many Salafi figures decided to take part in the legislative elections. Even so, attempts to form a distinctly Salafi political party and copy the electoral success of al-Nour in Egypt have not yet come to fruition. 

On February 4 2012, many Salafi-jihadist leaders such as Hassan El-Kettani, Omar al-Heddouchi, and Abdelwaheb Rafiki (better known as Abu Hafs) were granted royal pardons and released from jail. And with the Islamists’ rise to political prominence through the Justice and Development Party (PJD), Salafis and other Islamists openly expressed their hopes that the PJD would resolve the issue of “political imprisonment,” and limit their systematic arrest. Their hopes rose further when Mustapha al-Ramid, the former president of the Karama Human Rights Forum who once represented a number of Salafi-jihadist defendants, was named Morocco’s Minister of Justice

Al-Ramid later declared that El-Kettani and other prisoners had been detained under anti-terrorism laws, and not as political prisoners. But those released were insistent on the political nature of their incarceration and believe the Arab Spring played a role in their release. El-Kettani, who had been sentenced to 20 years, noted in reference to this: “We cannot talk about our release without talking about the Arab Spring.” Abu Hafs, who had been serving a 25-year term, said that he “was sure that they would be released as prisoners of conscience following the Arab Spring and the fall of the despots.” He added that their hopes of being released “had grown after the PJD won [Morocco’s parliamentary elections] and its leader, Abdelilah Benkirane, headed the Moroccan government.” 

Sheikhs Hassan El-Kettani and Abu Hafs are examples of leading Salafi figures' changing inclinations. Following their release, both have discussed the possibility of establishing association of dawa (missionary) outreach organizations. Meanwhile, Sheikh Mohammed al-Fizazi, another leading Salafi figure who was released recently, has asserted that he “is working on the final preparations preceding the announcement of a religious education association having a political tint, to transform into a political party with a religious bent—with the goal of creating an honorable competitor to present political actors.”

Al-Fizazi has yet to take steps toward the formation of a party; while Abu Hafs is focused on the establishment of a clearly outlined organization of missionary groups—without venturing into politics per se. And though Egypt’s Salafis have a history of work in dawa that has built up popular support for the Nour Party, Salafis in Morocco are still dealing with a range of constraints and struggling for recognition. 

The present open discussion of political involvement emerged as a part of the successes of the Arab Spring: the PJD’s involvement in the government has eased the atmosphere, and the growing influence of the other Salafis in the region has no doubt been encouraging.  But a discussion of restructuring (often identified as “revision” or “clarification”) within Salafi ranks originated domestically prior to the Arab Spring, but did not gain traction until afterwards. A former prisoner named Ali Alam (a leading Moroccan-Afghan veteran of the old Salafi stamp) actually had proposed a set of reforms to Salafi ideology, arguing that this discussion “… is not a setback , retreat, or defeat because of the stress of prison…but rather is a systematic revision of reform within the jihadist current imposed by objective transformations and convictions before, during, and after arrest, and analysis of the experience led the reformists within the jihadist current to make ideological revisions.” In addition, Hassan al-Khattab, sentenced for leading an Ansar al-Mehdi cell, led an initiative under the slogan “Counseling and Reconciliation” in which signers vowed to “not to engage in takfir [declaring individuals apostates] and label other Muslims as infidels without just cause.” 

In some instances, these figures have gone so far as to suggest Salafi ideology be revised on a deeper level—the most important demonstration of which being Abu Hafs’ “Be Fair to Us” initiative, which has left Salafis deeply divided. Initiatives attempt to break with the legacy of non-engagement and forge a new future; Abu Hafs has made multiple press statements in favor of political involvement, arguing that “party work needs preparation, tightly managed planning, and balanced interaction with the masses, whether in the field of missionary work and religious education, social work, having a media presence, and so on, which the Salafis in Egypt have been doing for decades and which has now borne fruit.” Additionally, al-Fizazi has been particularly blunt in his advocacy, citing the “urgent need to establish a political party with an Islamic frame of reference.” Later he has noted that “anyone who does not know so needs to know that those of us who are classified - whether we like it or not - as Salafis are among the most eager people to work in politics. We are politicians down to the bone.” Al-Fizazi has even gone so far as to recant his previous assertions that democracy was a “false idol” and “a religion other than Islam and another face of dictatorship.” In an interview with Attajdid on the launch of his “Be Fair to Us” initiative, Abu Hafs remarked that “Revisions are a legitimate necessity, an intellectual duty, and a moral aspiration.” 

The other increasingly acceptable option for engagement is the formation of Salafi “dawa associations," like the Moroccan Salafi Movement for Reform—an association of missionary outreach establishments whose founders are identified (vaguely) as “on the Islamist spectrum in Morocco.” The Salafi Movement for Reform submitted its application to legalize its status as an NGO in early 2012; authorities have not yet responded (nor even confirmed receipt of the application), which seems to suggest that the state is still uneasy about Salafis and their participation in the public sphere. Another group, the Moroccan Movement for Reform, has defined itself as “a religious education movement concerned with political affairs, which aims to take part in peaceful competition and intellectual debate across Morocco. It focuses on transparency, non-violence, inclusivity of all.” 

Hardliners, opposed to this dramatic attitude shift, have countered with the formation of Ansar al-Sharia (The Partisans of Islamic Law) on September 7, 2012 [NB: no relation to the Yemeni, Tunisian, or Libyan groups of the same name]. Ansar al-Sharia describes itself on Facebook as “a peaceful, political, religious education organization without any outside organizational links…its focus is religious education.” While its founders have not yet been named, some consider it a threat to more moderate Salafi trends, as it warns against secularism and man-made laws, and declares one of its goals to spread “the correct Islam.”

But even hardened Salafi Mohamed bin Abdul-Rahman al-Maghrawi—one of the most important traditionalist Salafis in Morocco and president of Jameat al-Da’wa ila al-Quran wa al-Sunna—has not been immune to change. After his return from self-imposed exile in Saudi Arabia during the Arab Spring, Sheikh al-Maghrawi (until then known for being extremely careful to stay out of politics), called on his followers to register to vote and to cast their votes in favor of the new constitution during the 2011 constitutional referendum. The reason, he argued, was “to safeguard the country’s greater good during these delicate circumstances. Taking into consideration the constitution’s enhanced emphasis on Islamic identity, we call upon Moroccans to vote yes, while reasserting the need to continue demanding that a text stipulate the place of Islamic Sharia in the legislative structure.” 

While the rise of populist politics in the region appear to be forcing Salafis to rethink their approach, it is not clear yet just how far they are willing to go—and how many concessions can they make. 

Sanaa Karim is a Moroccan journalist in Attajdid.